The Free Trade Agreement Could Spoil South Korea's State Visit

How to Make Lee's Visit a Success

For the obsessive-compulsive bureaucrat, there is no more invigorating exercise than preparing for a state visit by a foreign leader to the White House. Every piece of diplomatic choreography -- from the South Lawn arrival ceremony to who sits next to whom at the state dinner -- is meticulously planned weeks in advance. Governments work tirelessly for months to hammer out policy agreements ahead of time. The goal is that, when the big moment finally arrives, nothing will be left to chance.

Both the United States and South Korea are hard at work on just such preparations at the moment, ahead of a trip to Washington by President Lee Myung-bak next week. Lee and President Barack Obama will go to great lengths to celebrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. As they should: by all accounts, both in terms of personal chemistry between leaders and actual accomplishments, the 58-year-old relationship between the two countries has never been stronger.

There's just one problem -- well, two, actually. The issues of North Korea and of implementing the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement still require a lot of hard work by Seoul and Washington to get this meeting right. Without some clear progress on either issue before Lee arrives at the South Portico on October 13th, all the pomp and circumstance could lead to naught. 

Which would be a shame. During Lee's tenure, South Korea has emerged as a true global player, pursuing a green growth agenda, committing to reconstruction in Afghanistan, contributing naval assets to anti-piracy campaigns, and hosting the G20 summit last November; it will also host a global nuclear summit next year. Obama, for his part, will reiterate the strength of the U.S. commitment to Korea and to Asia generally. He will talk about the close coordination between the two allies in the face of North Korean provocations and their common global agenda in providing public goods to the international system. The two countries will use the meeting to celebrate a laundry list of successes: the transition of operational wartime command to South Korea, the relocation of U.S. bases out of Seoul, and a growing convergence on development assistance. 

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis